I visited Tortola, the main island of the British Virgin Islands, to find out whether there are affordable things to do in this rich person’s playground. I was also curious to see how British the islands really are.
So I took a walk around the capital Roadtown. Part of me hoped to find red telephone boxes, shops selling crumpets and locals talking like they were in Miss Marple. Not so! The post-boxes are blue and you’ll see American brands on sale in shops, meaning you’re going to have to bring your own Marmite.
The BVI are not as British as you’d imagine. It’s certainly not Surrey-on-Sea and they use the US dollar too. Historian Mitch Kent told me it’s more a case of, “baseball caps, rather than flat caps.” And he thinks that the cable TV, which is piped in from the States, does influence people, especially younger BVI residents.
American soil is also very close to the BVI and a ferry can take you there from Tortola in 60 minutes. Nevertheless, the British Virgin Islands and their US neighbours are a world apart. The USVI capital looks American with multiple freeway lanes, shopping centres and billboards. Roadtown in the BVI, on the other hand, is as bustling as a coastal town in Devon. It’s relaxed and quaint and not what I was expecting from a major financial centre (and I mean that in a good way).
Downtown is divided by a main road. On one side there’s the port and office blocks filled with insurance companies and government departments. I actually found a road named ‘Positive Action Drive.’ You’ll be pleased to know it’s a through street and not a dead end!
Just inland from the cruise ship terminal are brightly coloured huts that spring into action selling stuff to cruise ship passengers when boats are in port. That’s where you’ll find plenty of taxi drivers. When I was in Roadtown it was quiet, there were no cruise ships in and they were filling in the time between jobs playing dominoes, which is a serious pastime in the BVI!
Cross the main road and you’ll find a winding, narrow Main Street filled with colonial wooden cottages and two-storey timber town houses with verandas. The buildings are a mix of shops, galleries and offices and their wood is painted in the colours of a Caribbean fruit bowl – oranges, limes, lilacs and purples. They’re hemmed in by the high green thicket that rises sharply into the mountains behind.
An uneven pavement runs alongside Main Street which I suspect really tests the special awareness skills of the drivers of larger vehicles. Pedestrians and colourful chickens share the road space. As I walked down the street looking at the names and types of businesses, something else stuck me. You don’t see the international chains here. No Starbucks, Wal-Mart or the fast food franchises you might expect. Businesswoman Jocelyn Gunter told me that the BVI is proud of this difference.
“The businesses are more family oriented or small. Everyone is tight knit and friendly. People know each other here,” she told me. As we sat in the leafy garden outside her family business, Sunny Caribbee, at least five people smiled and waved at Jocelyn. Sunny Caribbee is one of those local places that I like to find in a high profile spot in a main town. It’s housed in a beautiful Victorian wooden villa on Main Street. Inside, every inch of wall space has been taken by shelving housing an incredible array of jars containing herbs, powders, seeds and spices. It’s a chef’s playground. Some of the products are sourced from elsewhere in the Caribbean.
I asked Jocelyn which one of her products would provide a chef with the true taste of Tortola. “Seasoned sea salt,” she replied. Salt is harvested from salt flats around Salt Island, near Roadtown and Jocelyn’s family adds some secret seasonings to create a distinctive taste. She also recommended their Hibiscus Tea, which is made from the flowers of the plant. “That’s super popular,” she beamed. Another drink completed Jocelyn’s BVI taste list – a tart beverage made from guava berries, which are similar to a guava fruit but smaller. It’s considered a Christmas classic in the BVI.
As I walked down the street, the BVI was filling my senses. I could feel, smell and hear Roadtown. Soft, sweet lilting reggae streamed from passing cars or from behind the opened sash windows of the street-side cottages. Every few hundred yards I caught the smell of curry on the breeze. I followed my nose to one of Roadtown’s roti stores.
I’d been told to check out the curried fish or beef wrapped up in flat bread. Rotis originated in the Indian sub-continent and migrating workers took their cuisine to the Caribbean countries where they settled. My personal recommendation is Ruby Roti Queen but try and go when there’s a bit of a breeze blowing. They’ve no air conditioning so you’ll be relying on the wind blowing through their first floor cafe to cool you down when you’re in town. At under £5 for a soft drink and meal, this is definitely the one of the most affordable (and delicious) meal options in Roadtown.
BVI residents clearly follow the British ‘lick the plate clean’ approach to food! “Better belly bus’ dan good food go to waste” said the sign hanging inside the Island Roots Coffee Shop, half way along Main Street. Just from sampling their amazingly moist banana bread, that’s a sentiment I’d agree with.
Next, I’m going to meet the man who owns the Pusser’s Rum Empire. There’s a kind and soft side to the hard stuff in Tortola – every bottle sold helps former British sailors in need.
For more information on how to get to the BVI click here.